Memories of Duke Kahanamoku and the Natatorium

“He was too polite to say so, but it became very clear that Duke just didn’t want to swim in the Natatorium.”
John Titchen

The Natatorium in 1967, by John Titchen. Used with permission.

In 1967, long-time staff photographer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, John Titchen, received a call from the Editor of Sports Illustrated and Titchen was retained to “shoot a photo of Duke swimming in the Natatorium,” ostensibly for the cover of the renowned magazine. Titchen had moved to Honolulu in 1959 and had enjoyed a professional relationship with “the Duke.”

On the morning of the shoot, John picked up the Duke and they drove to Queens surf. John remembers parking by the old Queen’s Surf Nightclub and the two of them walking along the beach to the Ewa end of Natatorium. Titchen said, “Duke was too polite to say so, but even after a lot of subtle encouragement, it became very clear that Duke just didn’t want to swim in the Natatorium. He instead went into water in front of old aquarium and I took some shots of Duke doing a backstroke, and later, several others of him twirling his hair between his fingers as he used to do. Because my assignment had been to photograph Duke in the Natatorium, I sent in my shots but just figured I had probably lost the assignment to another photographer.” But they indeed did use John’s work. He didn’t get the cover, but here is that page from the September, 11, 1967 issue of Sports Illustrated with the John Titchen photo of the Duke.

Photo by John Titchen. Used with permission.

I asked Titchen what it was like to actually swim in the Natatorium and he related this story: He recalls from the early 1960’s, his wife and two daughters returning home after a day at the Natatorium and the two young girls were crying. “I asked my wife what was the matter and she asked me if I had ever swam there. I actually hadn’t, and so one day I went down to see for myself. Now I’m a fairly good swimmer and it was very foreboding. I couldn’t touch bottom, and what was the most frightening, the water level was too far below the deck and so I couldn’t grab hold of anything. And the water was very dirty and dark. Hawai’i has a tide differential of less than a foot and it’s just not enough to flush it out. It just never worked right.”

I later asked Titchen, a veteran and now over 80, what he thought of the Natatorium as a war memorial. Titchen related, “In 1919, that whole 6.4 acres section of coastline from the William Irwin estate was originally designated as ‘the World I War Memorial Park’ and there was no mention of a swimming pool. The facade and this pool weren’t built until 1927 and it’s been a problem ever since. I maintain that they’re wasting their time because nature is going to take care of it and I just hate to see them spend any more money on it. None of it should have ever been built that close, right in the ocean, in the first place. And the Natatorium pool was a freak from the beginning. As far as the politicians arguing that it’s a hallowed war memorial, I’ve been going to the Natatorium on November 11th, Veteran’s Day, every year since the early 1960’s and the flags have never flown there, even since the recent restoration.” So much for politicians’ talk. Titchen also noted that former Mayors Neil Blaisdell and Frank Fasi both supported tearing the Natatorium completely down. “Anyway, at this point I think it ought to be put on the ballot and let the public decide the fate of the Natatorium. I bet they would vote to demolish it,” Titchen noted.

Incidentally, the 101 names of the World War I Hawai’i casualties are commemorated on a plaque mounted on a large rock facing the Natatorium arch. Titchen notes, “Every November 11th for as long as I have been going, 22 leis are laid on the stone by somebody. I don’t know the significance of the 22.”